I don't know exactly what's up with the gates, one thing I do know is that it's a big deal and one should pay attention and not mess up. Outside the gate is the outside world, inside is the village of the Akha. The double track is from the feet coming and going, there are no roads for many kilometers.
I asked my guide Tui if I could take a photo, then I asked the local guide too and waited for his reaction. I ask every time, who knows, maybe it's ok at one time but not another. I do know not to touch. There are a couple gates per village and they have a lot to do with keeping bad stuff from entering and good stuff staying. There is a whole rigmarole about when and how to build them. Seems like they build gates just outside of the old gates every once in a while, like two feet further out. I've seen village gates too that you aren't supposed to walk through. I kid you not, the trail abruptly turns and if you look beside it uphill there is that gate without a worn trail through it, why I don't know, but I'm careful to do as others do and walk the correct trail.
Into nature these Akha folks are, there are rules about sticks inside the village, can't throw them or can't break them or something. To be safe I don't break or throw. They leave the trees all around the village too. They only live in close proximity to big trees. The forests are diverse with hundreds of different plant and animal species, every child learns the names and uses and habits of every one of them. The use of and relations with all things is codified in the set of rules known as The Akha Way. If all this sounds like a big pain it's really not.
Many of the symbols on the gate have to do with animals, probably hoping to ensure a good hunt for the food of the forest that feeds them. On one gate Tui pointed out some sticks that actually if you looked close were a symbol of two humans doing the wild thing. It was the trunk of two small saplings with enough branches and roots in the right places to resemble human limbs, someone had carved them to add realism. Probably some sort of fertility symbol. To a people who can recite their lineage by rote memory back through the generations, having progeny is important.
Often you see little AK-47s carved out of wood attached to the gate. Maybe to scare away evil or to show the power of the village. There is no more powerful symbol than the AK.
I've never made a study of the various rules and traditions of the Akha, I only learn what I pick up here and there over the years. I do try to be watchful of those around me to make sure I'm not missing any disaproving glances. I'd hate to be the one to enter a closed village or unknowingly break some other tradition, not only because there would have to be some sort of effort made to offset the badness but also because I know that bad luck is something that no amount of ritual can wash away. Even though many of their laws and rules might seem superstitious to westerners it's not up to me to pick and choose which rules to believe or follow, by entering an Akha village I'm accepting all of their ways.
Ban Nam Hee (backwards it's Hee River Village) is a village that seemed to be doing very well for itself. Quite a few metal roofs to be seen, a sure sign of prosperity. Situated at the confluence of the Nam Hee and the Nam Fa (Hee and Blue or Sky River) the word for blue and the word for sky sound the same to me, you don't need to know what "hee" translates as. The valley bottom widens out large enough for rice paddies and regular rice cultivation. They have water buffalo. I guess it has to be the most well to do upland village I've yet seen.
Ban Nam Hee on Google Earth. Note the bright reflection of the newer metal roofs. Also notice the different texture and colors indicating different growth. The rough texture surrounding the village is caused by large old growth trees rising above the canopy. The Akha never cut the trees around the village, many of those trees were there before Laos was a colony.
Further behind and uphill the telltale yellow of a recently harvested upland rice field. More subtly north of the village the uniform velvet of regrown swidden agriculture. Fields are rotated on a very long schedule. After growing rice or corn for a couple of years a field might well lay fallow for twelve to twenty years, each year providing habitat for different species of animals and plants until once again it is slashed and burnt. The rotation of crop lands and the circle of life continues much as it has for centuries uncounted.
Good luck with any plans the Lao Government might have to relocate these folks, they're doing just fine right where they are. I'm sure they'd never trade their lands for some spot beside the road perched on the side of a hill.
Above the terraced wet rice fields. It's as if there were a tiny enclave of lowland agriculture plonked down amidst this land of mountain rice and slash and burn. I think these fields are the key to the prosperity of the village. Wet rice has very high yields per acre or rai which is the local measurement. One rai can support one family with high calorie sticky rice for one year.
On the way out the next morning we walked past the graineries above the rice fields. There was so much rice that the extra was stored outside in old rice sacks where the animals could get at it. There was just no more room to store the rice they had. Above you can see a new storage shed being built past the one with the sacks. Rice is stored away from the village, if there is fire there is still rice to eat.
Ban Nam Hee even had water buffaloes. You see less photos of water buffs in Asia now that the iron buffalo is everywhere, but in an upland village? Five of them! There seemed to be no one there to mind the animals, maybe a youngster heard us coming and hid. There was no second season rice to guard against them eating. Still, there are tigers and leopards in the forest, perhaps no carnivores around, or the buffalo are too big and with horns.
The village was the first one I'd seen with an electric generator. Other places had LED bulbs hooked to batteries, Ban Nam Hee had a satellite TV. In the evenings they'd turn on the generator for a couple of hours and women would have light to cook with. A dim electric bulb is a handy thing to have.
Though it took us two full days to walk to Ban Nam Hee, during the wet season the navigable portion of the Nam Fa is only three hours walk away. (six hours our walking speed). So the village floated a diesel engine and generator down the river and then using many people with slings and poles carried the heavy engine, over many days, over the mountains to their village.
Compact Fluorescent light bulb and the view from the Naiban's porch.
In the photo above you can see that though the roof is metal, very little other things in the village are manufactured products. You never see empty plastic bags or water bottles on the ground. The fence is of sticks, the baskets of bamboo, water is carried in long tubes made from bamboo, snacks are carried in folded pieces of banana leaf, things are tied with a long splinter from bamboo. Children's and often men's clothes are store bought, but the older men wear at least a coat of the comfortable and beautiful cotton dyed black and woven on looms under the houses. Almost all clothes of the women are home made.
Tui pointed out a guy working with a saht and coke in the photo above. I'm not sure which ingredients he's mixing together to make gunpowder but I'd be willing to bet he isn't mixing all three of them at the same time. Saltpeter is probably readily available from manure, and charcoal is of course easy, I'm not sure where they get the sulfur.
Usually when arriving at a village I don't do much. It's already late afternoon, and when the sun goes down it's very night. My guide points me to my place usually furthest from the center of the sleeping platform, and I swallow my daily blood pressure and cholesterol pills, chased with a couple ibuprofen and lots of warm water from the kettle. The fatigue of walking is cumulative and I know that I'll need all the rest I can get. I mostly eat only the rice offered to me, leaving the meat. I can digest the rice easiest it provides me with the energy to burn the excess fuel I have in the form of fat. I'm positive any meat will be eaten by someone.
Left of me in the photo is one of the old style muskets with a pistol grip, they hold them far away from their face so as not to get singed from the flash of the powder.
The naiban was as Tui had promised charming. His wife gave me a gift of an embroidered pocket which I carry to this day. I have to say I've never met a naiban that didn't seem like a very decent man. The translation of naiban as "village chief" doesn't really do the title justice. The naiban isn't appointed, he's elected by everyone in the village. The naiban is the responsible person of final resort, for every single human being in the village, every one of which he has known his entire life. I'm not sure what other duties a naiban performs. Sometimes the Naiban is the same man for years, other times it changes, lately maybe the government has some influence.
Above the naiban of Ban Nam Hee. On the left his oldest son and daughter in law, on the right his wife and youngest child, peeking from behind his back either his or his son's child. The naiban carried that kid constantly the whole time I was there. Notice the coat the naiban wears. The oldest wife has one breast bare as is the custom, it's also convenient for suckling the youngest son. Married women have bared breasts, a tradition which dies away after much contact with staring, photo taking, outsiders.
Notice the boards forming the walls behind the family, they are cut with a "pah-ee-toe", the long knife that is used for everything, yet they are very flat and fit together tightly. The structural parts of the house are post and beam, the floor split bamboo. There is an open fire on a hearth of dirt and ashes, the smoke filters up and out the high roof.
Being naiban isn't all heavy responsibilities. From every wild deer or pig killed one front leg goes to the naiban and one leg goes to the house of the oldest man in the village. Also it seems of late the government gives one center fire rifle (SKS)to each head of the village. Maybe it's because the head of the village is also part of the government.
As I drifted in the minutes before sleep that evening listening to the low murmer of the talk in the household, in my mind I reviewed where we'd come from and where we were headed. The village is on no map, the river that bears the same name isn't either. I figured we were not too far from the hard surface banked road used by trucks headed from Thailand to China, maybe twenty kilometers or less as the crow flies. The next day somehow we'd turn towards the south and somewhere cross the Nam Fa on our way to Ban Jakune Mai.
Morning fog burning off in the valley, Ban Nam Hee still in shade.